Friday, January 27, 2012

Absolute Subjectivity

I've realized that my last couple of posts might have given the idea that I think that LGBTQ people who do believe that their homosexuality is caused by family dynamics are just “making it up,” that it's “all in their heads,” that it's a rather dull delusion being projected onto their experience. I wanted to be clear that this is not what I'm implying.

First, family dynamic stories are not boring, reductive or unhip by nature. Tenessee Williams, Robertson Davies, David Foster Wallace and countless other writers have produced absolutely fabulous, gripping stories out of family conflicts. These narratives are not only valid, they elucidate the core of archetypal meaning which is to be found in human relationships. They are a revelation of a truth that is much deeper than mere fact. As James Joyce so eloquently showed us, when a person has an experience of conflict within the family, and especially of the resolution or forgiveness of that conflict, this can be an epic adventure equal to the Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings. So long as the narrative is genuine, so long as it arises from the true experience of the subject, it has the capacity to be a manifestation of truth. These stories only become dull and uninspiring when they are subjected to formulaic constraints – when they cease to be a genuine expression of the individual personality, and they become the psychological equivalent of predictable Hollywood schlock.

More fundamentally, though, I would like to emphasize that subjective realities are not delusional or “untrue.” One of the great errors promulgated by the Enlightenment is the privileging of objective truth to the denigration of subjectivity. This notion of objectivity, which is exemplified by the dogma that the Earth goes around the Sun and not visa versa, rests on the assumption that more distance you have from a thing, the more accurate, reliable, verifiable and therefore true, your observations about it will be. This distance can be achieved through physical removal, psychological disinterestedness, intellectual abstraction or conditional controls (think of the kind of detachment from real life implied by controlled laboratory conditions.) The artifacts of the human interior, because they cannot be subjected to external verification or objective study, become increasingly suspect in such a scheme. They are trusted only in so far as they can be abstracted by psychological metanarratives, rationalized by statistical data gathering, or otherwise placed under artificial surveillance.

This kind of objectivism produced a kind of scientific totalitarianism – not only in the political order but in the order of knowledge itself: a totalizing metanarrative founded on the presumed superiority of objective observation. This metanarrative, which has formed the intellectual substrata of Western thought throughout the modern era, is profoundly at odds with Christianity. When the Church fulminated against the Copernicans, it was not because She was insisting on an inaccurate way of looking at the universe, but rather because She was trying to preserve a worldview which placed personality, not impersonality, at the centre of Knowledge. She was attempting to preserve humanity from the inhuman excesses of humanism.

What Christians believe in is not objectivity, but absolutism. We believe that truth really is true, but that it is vouchsafed not by disinterested objectivity, but by a profoundly interested Divine personality. All of the objects of scientific inquiry will pass away, but the person, his soul, his experience, his loves, his interests and his subjectivity will persist. It is the subject that God loves, the subject that is made in the image and likeness of God. Absolute truth is not “out there” but in here: the “Kingdom of God,” which is “within.” Verily, verily, God Himself is not an objective, abstract deity, but a communion of persons: a triune intersubjectivity possessed of free will, capable of loving, and hating, and experiencing. This God is not watching us from a distance, He is watching us from the Centre of the World, the Cross, through the eyes of a body which is the Body of the whole human race in time and throughout eternity. This absolute personality includes and verifies all of our little subjectivities, not by getting outside of them, by seeing with a more objective eye, but by getting inside of them, by becoming united to them.

These subjective truths are not judged according to the logic of objective science, but rather according to the logic of narrative. The Saints have “Lives,” that is, they have stories which vouchsafe their sanctity. God does not decide who will get into heaven by taking a statistical survey of the opinions of the neighbours, nor by adding up a utilitarian calculation of goods and evils committed in this life, or even by asking whether a person performed any scientifically verifiable miracles, but rather by examining the interior logic of the personality: whether it produced a story-shaped life, and whether the story that was lived conformed to the True story of the person of Christ.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Paragraph Breaks

Hello all. I've had several complaints about the problem of paragraph breaks not existing in my recent posts. Aaargh. I am aware of the problem. Sadly, ever since Blogger last updated itself in order to serve me better, it's been failing to register paragraph breaks. Apparently my browser is no longer supported, presumably because it has settings that don't allow Google to hack directly into my central nervous system in order to analyze the contents of my brain to power AdSense. I've tried a lot of different ways of trying to get it to recognize my para-breaks, but so far, no dice. I'll keep looking into it.

UPDATE: This should be fixed now. Adding the html code seems to have worked.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mmmm....I Love Wisdom

I've spent most of the day listening to lectures and reading philosophy, and I'm reminded of how much fun there is in the contemplation of Beauty and Truth. Fun, perhaps, is the wrong word. Pleasure. A tingly, jangly, boyous feeling that rises from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head and which causes wild ejaculations of unbounded joy to issue from the lips. (No accident, I think, that the same word has served in the English language to describe a momentary gush of ecstatic prayer and also male sexual climax.) It's not in any way a disembodied pleasure. Spiritual and intellectual joys are also physical, they are experienced through the body, and they make the entire organism feel wonderful in a way that really puts the orgasm to shame.

Philosophers have long been wont to talk of these pleasures as the “higher,” or “nobler” pleasures. These terms have unfortunately come to take on the baggage of stuffy, pretentious, elitism. It would, I think, be more accurate today to speak of these as greater pleasures: that is they provide more avenues and possibilities for sustainable pleasure than can be found in the realms of sexuality or in other forms of purely sensual delight.

Greek philosophy acknowledged this. Socrates, in both the Symposium and the Phaedras, refers to an experience of the Beautiful which serves as a foundation for the love and pursuit and wisdom. This experience is so profound, and fills the soul with such joy, that anything else pales in comparison. Socrates, and others before and since, discovered that they could increase their access to these sublime pleasures by channeling the force of erotic desire, avoiding sexual fulfillment in order to fly up into the realms of heavenly contemplation. Eros, in this scheme, is not abandoned or repressed, but rather harnessed and sublimated for the sake of that greater pleasure.

The question is, why, if the pleasures of Truth, Goodness and Beauty are greater than the pleasures of sex, food and wine, do people so consistently opt for the latter? There are several reasons. The first is that the initial experience of the sublime – that experience which Christianity tends to refer to as “conversion” or “mystical experience” -- can come at any point in a human life. For some it seems to come later rather than sooner, and these people naturally find it difficult to appreciate that spiritual pleasures really could outshine worldly ones “as daylight doth a lamp.” The second is that the so-called “base” pleasures are easier to access. A chocolate eclair is pretty much plug and play: you stick it in your mouth, and you have instant pleasure. There's no delicate and sophisticated interior balance that must be struck, no training of the faculties, no slow expansion of the heart or arduous practice of virtue necessary to prepare to receive it. A third is that the pleasures of Beauty, Truth and Goodness are voluntary. Those who do not practice them will suffer, certainly, from various forms of spiritual malaise: depression, boredom, cynicism, anxiety, and a sense of meaninglessness. None the less, these forms of uneasiness don't immediately and obviously translate into a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” in the same way that sexual frustration translates into sexual desire and that nicotine addiction translates into tobacco cravings. The suffering that comes with the suppression of physical desires is more violent and more immediately recognizable than the suffering that comes from spiritual starvation, and so people are generally quicker to satisfy their physical cravings.

Finally, and this deserves a paragraph all its own, there is the problem of Jansenism. There is a tendency amongst those who have experienced the pleasures of the sublime to become proud of these pleasures. A rather silly form of Puritanism quickly comes to infect the soul, and the genuine, ecstatic and ultimately humbling pleasures of being in the presence of the Beautiful and the True is slowly replaced by the much uglier pleasure of feeling that you are better than other people because you have such rarefied tastes. This pleasurable pride, in its extreme, pretends to eschew pleasure altogether: it starts to make absurd claims about indifference, apathy and disinterestedness and lays claim to an inhuman and disembodied altruism from which it derives the terrible pleasure of diabolical self-congratulation. This tendency, which can be found in Socrates' disdain of sex as “that which the multitudes account blissful,” and which also too often infects Christian piety, is the very spiritual poison which causes the righteous to rank below the prostitutes and tax collectors in the queue for heavenly bliss. Such self-righteous pleasure is so evidently unappealing and manifestly disedifying that it often serves to alienate and repel people from the pursuit of spiritual joy.

* Socrates is sometimes a little sour-grapesy about sexual pleasure. He doesn't seem to have gotten much out of his marriage, and frankly I wouldn't be surprised if he was one of those gay men who is capable of paying the marriage debt but not capable of deriving much pleasure from the performance. As to his legendary ability to withstand homoerotic temptations, he's a bit of a show-off in a way that really impressed people like Plato, but you'll notice that most of the guests at the Symposium laugh and then traipse off after Alcibiades rather than lingering to listen to Socrates pontificate.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Straight Story Part II: Redemption Songs

I promised to say something good about the reparative therapy narrative, so here we go.

What reparative therapy offers is an origin story, an etiological myth, to explain the genesis of homosexuality. The client accepts and internalizes this story and then resolves it: he moves through a series of interior confrontations with the father wound and the spectre of the overattached mother, he defeats these internal demons, and in doing so, he is healed.

This is a classic form of healing, found in all societies. A Magus figure, a shaman, guru, or psychologist (I think it's Peter Kreeft who points out that the latter are the Priest-class of scientific modernism) claims authority over the cause of illness. This illness may be psychological, physical or spiritual. The Magus tells a story which harkens back to The Beginning, and then symbolically moves the one in need of healing back into that time when the illness first came to be. There is then a confrontation, an interior struggle in which both the medicine man and the patient participate together by invoking the deity who has the power to overcome the ancient evil which is gnawing away at the patient's body or psyche. Through this confrontation, which may take the form of a rigorous psychological trial, the evil is defeated. Both the Magus and the patient return from the past-time and the patient is healed.

Now I personally like my etiological myths to be mythology flavoured: I prefer stories that go back to when the ancestors were wandering in the dream-time, or when the people used to be bears, or when Adam and Eve lived in a perfect garden from the centre of which flowed four rivers. Scientific materialism requires etiological myths that are somewhat less spectacular, that have the illusion of being “objective” and “verifiable.” Hence the reliance of traditional psychoanalysis on “family of origin” narratives to explain all sorts of psychological problems. The original family serves, in these stories, as The Beginning, the psychological beginning of the person's life, and the healing takes place by returning to that time and resolving conflicts there (religious anthropologist Mercea Eliade uses the lovely Latin phrase “in illo tempore” to refer to that special time in which etiological myths take place.)

Putting my personal tastes aside, however, the reparative therapy narrative does offer most of the essential features of a good medicine song. It goes back to The Beginning. In The Beginning, there are evils to be confronted. These evils are archetypally valid, and they exist in a valid archetypal relationship with the Magus figure who is leading the patient back into the past in order to bring him healing. The parasitic, overcontrolling mother is a classic figure in the “father quest,” that is in stories of self-discovery and identity creation. The distant father is an ambiguous figure, he could be a true Father, a Magus figure who the child rejects because he is too forbidding and austere, or he could be a disgraceful father who fails his children because he is too absorbed in himself. In any case, the child confronts these figures, throwing off the yoke of the overcontrolling mother and reconciling with the distant father. The reparative therapists themselves say that their methods are more effective than mere psychotherapy because they use Christian spirituality to bring about reconciliation. This is the invocation of the deity, another important element of true healing stories.

What this means, is that reparative therapy may be effective for some people, but its efficacy relies on the client's ability to buy into the narrative and accept the authority of the therapist. This is where the comment about family of origin stories being “boring and reductive” becomes an issue. If the story that the medicine man tells seems ridiculous, insufficient, or otherwise not compelling to the patient, then the medicine will not work. This, I think, is where reparative therapy suffers. The trope that's on offer is just too square. It's obviously the sort of thing that straight people would think up to explain homosexuality, but worse, it's the sort of thing that straight people would have thought up sixty years ago. It's in an outmoded, modernist, Freudian idiom that just seems weird and alienating to postmodern queerdom. It is, in short, tragically unhip.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Straight Story

I'm back. I was away for a bit because I had to have one of my teeth pulled out. Really weird feeling, because they kill all of your pain receptors, but your can still feel a bone being slowly wrenched out of your jaw and it feels like your entire maxilla is being stressed almost to the point of breaking. I wish that I could say that I had some great spiritual insight that I gained as a result of the suffering which attended this event, but the only thing I've ever really learned from dental pain is that brandy is a salutary remedy.

Anyways, someone left a comment on “Wake Me When I'm Straight” that I wanted to address in detail.

“I recently interviewed someone who has been helped through "exodus." they help people walk out of homosexuality. the guy i was interviewing seemed to believe that the "distant dad, too close mom" was true for him and others he ministers to. now to my question...hmm...i'm not sure I can formulate a question. there is one in mind somewhere, but don't know how to articulate it. I guess i'm just a little hesitant to agree with what you're saying. What if those narratives people create are true? I don't think there is no way to prove it or disprove it, right? why is "reductive and boring" a bad thing if it is the truth? Thanks”
The difficulty is that the smothering mother/distant father narrative is a narrative. Narratives aren't “true” or “untrue” in an objective sense. They're a means of structuring subjective experience in order to extract meaning from it. Subjectivity is, by definition, not subject to the same laws of objective truthfulness as objective reality. The laws of truthfulness for this realm are similar in some ways, but ultimately they are more aesthetic in character than those for the objective sciences. A narrative is part of the way that a person structures their life in order to make of it a “masterpiece,” a work of art complete with a coherent plot structure, obstacles faced and overcome, villains, lovers, big reveals, character development and a stirring climax.

What this means is that a person is constantly making decisions about how to experience and process their memories. People are constantly telling and retelling their own stories to themselves. I have absolutely no doubt that people in Exodus, and people in Courage who accept the reparative therapy story, have come to understand their memories in this way. Others who, for whatever reason, find these narratives repellent will deliberately shape their memories in order to negate or deny any evidence that might support them. On the whole, though, the evidence is necessarily going to be there for anyone who is willing to do the work to substantiate the theory.

With regards to the “distant father” part of the narrative, as Leonard Cohen says “It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded.” Having a “father wound” is not a characteristic trait of queer men, it's a characteristic fact about human beings. It's what skeptics call a “Barnum Statement,” that is, a statement which sounds like it really gets at the depths of a profoundly private personal reality, but which could really be applied to the vast majority of people. Such statements are, incidentally, the stock-in-trade of phone psychics and cold readers; there are lots of things that people think are really secret and individual that are nearly universal, and if you know what they are you can convince lots of folks that you have psychic powers. Most people, if they were dedicated to the cause, could find evidence that their fathers were distant or insufficiently supportive, because most men have difficulty with expressing their emotions, with voicing their approval, etc. If all of my straight readers would step back for a moment, and try to search their childhood for deep, perhaps even hidden, evidence that their father wasn't really there for them, emotionally, physically, the way that a representative of God the Father ought to be, I'm sure that they'd be able to dig up more than enough to substantiate claims that they too have a “father wound.”

Likewise with the “overattached mother.” Mother's are naturally strongly attached to their kids. They're naturally apprehensive about male aggressiveness. They're naturally protective – especially if they happen to have a child who is sensitive and/or subjected to bullying, which is pretty common with “effeminate” boys. In short, the narrative described by the reparative therapists is a narrative that could be formed out of the experience of almost anyone who was willing to buy into it, anyone who was willing to shape and construct their personal history to meet the theories of the psychotherapist who was offering them hope of release from painful personal circumstances. In the case of gay men in therapy, the psychological motivation to find evidence to substantiate the psychotherapist's theories is overwhelming – especially since reparative therapists tell their clients up front what kind of personal history they are going to discover in the course of therapy.

Anyways, I risk exceeding the attention span of internet readers. I do have some positive things to say about the reparative therapy narrative, which I'll try to address in my next post.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Blame and Responsibility

Ever since Adam and Eve ate the fateful apple, human beings have tended to frame the idea of responsibility in terms of blame. There's a sort of “let him who made the mess clean it up” mentality, which leads to a strong desire to inquire into the question of who made the mess. In the case of homosexuality, this leads to various different kinds of blame-narratives, most of them centred on the parents of people with SSA. The best known trope of this kind is the “distant father, overattached mother” narrative which reparative therapy borrows from an older Freudian model. This, however, is far from the only finger that has been pointed at the parents of LGBTQ kids. From the molly-coddling fears of the 1950's, to theories that Satan gets into the womb as a result of marital infidelity during pregnancy, theories to explain how parents cause their kids to end up gay abound.

The legacy of this is not difficult to see. I've noticed that Christian parents of gay and lesbian children often react as though homosexuality was a much greater tragedy than any other sinful inclination. Part of the reason for this, as Foucault very aptly describes it, is that “The...homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, an amorphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle...It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature.” Realizing that not everyone speaks Foucauldian, I should clarify that what he's saying is that the Middle Ages understood sodomy as a class of sin, an act which a person might engage in, whereas in the modern era we have come to think of homosexuality as a condition which effects a person in their entirety. Their childhood and the way in which they were raised is therefore naturally implicated. For the parents of LGBTQ kids, this means that their child's sexual inclinations are not merely temptations, and not even merely a disorder, they are the evidence of personal failure on the part of the parents themselves.

Christianity construes responsibility in a different way which I think could be much more helpful to parents of homosexual children than the guilt-saturated models. The tendency to accuse the parents for the sufferings of the child is not new: there is a striking example in the New Testament. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?” The disciples ask Jesus in the 9th Chapter of John. Christ replies, “Neither he nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as the day lasts I must carry out the works of the one who sent me.” Christ dismisses the question of who is responsible for the blindness of this man in terms of blame, and moves immediately to a discussion of who is responsible in terms of healing. His attitude is not that the person who is responsible must make amends, but rather that the person who is able to fix the problem is responsible for doing so. He creates a different kind of narrative, a narrative of restoration in which the blindness of the man becomes a locus of grace rather than an indictment for past sin.

For the parents and families of people with same-sex attraction, I think that this same principle can be applied. There are many ways in which parents and relatives of homosexual people are inclined to apply blame. Some feel that a son or daughter's homosexuality means that they were bad parents, others become resentful and try to escape from a sense of personal guilt by arguing that the gay or lesbian child is responsible for their own condition, while still others push the guilt further away, blaming homosexual partners or a gay-friendly culture for corrupting their beloved child. I think that instead it is more useful to focus on looking for ways that a child's homosexuality can become an opportunity for grace. The genesis of homosexuality is, as the Catechism points out, unknown. It is also not especially important. The much greater and more essential truth is that this too is a way in which the works of God might be displayed in a human life, and that we are all called to take responsibility – not blame – for “All are responsible for all.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)